Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s right-wing former president, has been banned from holding office for the next eight years. Brazil’s top elections court on Friday found that Bolsonaro had abused his power by repeatedly lying about the integrity of the country’s 2022 elections, in which former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, defeated him.
The Superior Electoral Court’s seven-member panel voted 5-2 to restrict Bolsonaro from office. Bolsonaro has the option to appeal that decision in the nation’s highest court — a move he’ll likely make. But Bolsonaro is no longer an elected official, and as a private citizen, he faces a number of criminal investigations, including spreading disinformation about Brazil’s electoral system, allegedly running a fake news factory through the president’s office, and a probe into whether he meddled with the federal police force to protect his sons from corruption investigations.
After losing to Lula in an October 2022 runoff, Bolsonaro refused to concede the election and did not attend his successor’s inauguration, opting instead to head to Florida, much like his American analog former President Donald Trump. A week after the transition, on January 8, Bolsonaro supporters stormed federal buildings in the capital of Brasilia, briefly taking over the Supreme Court and Congress and breaching the presidential palace.
Though the decision against Bolsonaro has seemingly stifled his political career, he still has some influence; in addition to the thousands of supporters who stormed Brasilia in his name, the former president has allies — including his son Eduardo — in Congress, and he has hinted that his wife Michelle may run for president in 2026.
The court’s decision, too, is not without its complications. Though Brazil does have an independent judiciary, both the electoral court and the Supreme Court face allegations that they have overstepped their bounds, specifically the Supreme Court jurist Alexandre de Moraes. To many, de Moraes is a crusader against the far right and corruption; to others, he is a menace to free speech, an unelected official with too much power.
The controversy in Brazil’s judiciary
Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court, called by its Portuguese acronym TSE, has no exact US equivalent, but its closest corollary is the Federal Elections Commission. The TSE oversees Brazil’s electoral process and, along with regional electoral courts, their judges, and electoral boards, makes up the Brazilian Electoral Court.
De Moraes is both the head of the TSE and a member of the Supreme Court, which gives him significant power over Bolsonaro’s future.
De Moraes has headed many probes into Bolsonaro, including the investigation into the January 8 riots and the spread of social media disinformation around the 2022 campaign. Brazil’s constitution allows a sitting president to be arrested only if the Supreme Court convicts them of a crime; now that Bolsonaro is a private citizen, he’s subject to the authority of lower courts, Reuters reported in January.
Brazil’s presidents are no strangers to criminal charges; Lula himself was elected after spending two years in jail on corruption charges, and Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff was charged in the same corruption scandal that initially brought down Lula. Lula’s charges were overturned in 2021; Rousseff was impeached and removed from office in a separate scandal.
There’s also precedent for apparent politically motivated investigations, including, allegedly, the investigation into Lula’s involvement in a sweeping corruption scandal. Operation Car Wash, or Lava Jato in Brazil, was lauded as the biggest anti-corruption investigation in history, and a critical step in a country and region where politics and corruption are intertwined.
But Lava Jato’s legacy was short-lived after the Supreme Court found that former judge Sergio Moro, who oversaw Lava Jato, had embarked on a “project of power, which required politically delegitimizing the Workers’ Party and, especially, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva,” Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes said.
Some observers now fear that de Moraes is participating in a similarly political project, and that he’s consolidating a concerning amount of power in the judiciary, too. “Today he’s doing it against our enemy. Tomorrow he’s doing it against our friend — or against us,” Irapuã Santana, a Brazilian attorney and legal columnist at O Globo, told the New York Times in January. “It’s a dangerous precedent.”
But if de Moraes is overreaching, it’s only in response to Bolsonaro’s stunning actions while in office and his alleged crimes, according to Fernando Bizzarro, a Brazilian political scientist and post-doc researcher at Yale’s Leitner Program on Effective Democratic Governance. “[Political elites] very clearly made this tacit endorsement of him as the person who would play this role, and backed him up in all of his decisions” during his investigations, Bizzarro said in an interview.
“People like the president of the Senate or the president of the House rarely disputed anything de Moraes did; in fact, they often endorsed everything he did, and every time Bolsonaro said something appalling or tried to do something criminal and de Moraes reacted against it, the congressional leaders would come out and side with [him],” he said.
Bolsonaro is out. But what about Bolsonarismo?
Even without Bolsonaro in politics, Bolsonarismo, his nationalist, right-wing ideology, continues.
Bolsonaro himself lost last year’s elections, but his Liberal Party gained 22 seats in Congress’s lower house, making his right-wing coalition dominant in the chamber. The Senate, too, saw Bolsonarista gains, and right-wing Bolsonaro allies also had a strong showing in gubernatorial races, Reuters reported at the time.
It’s in those governorships and local elections where Bizzarro sees Bolsonarismo living.
“On that level, the 2022 elections were much more favorable to Bolsonaristas — they won the major governorships, they govern São Paolo which is the largest state. They govern Minas Gerais which is the second-largest state,” he said. “They govern several of the largest states and the Brazilian center-south, which is the wealthiest part of the country.”
Inasmuch as the ideology persists and regroups, it may not do so around Bolsonaro himself. It’s hard to tell what political allies Bolsonaro has other than his family; unlike Lula, Bizzarro explained, Bolsonaro doesn’t have the support of a longstanding party machine and meaningful political victories to help him maintain relevance until he’s allowed back into politics. So if there is a future Bolsonarista leader, it’s just as likely to be one of the governors as it is Bolsonaro or someone from his inner circle.
Bolsonaro isn’t riling up his base like he did after the election
Bolsonaro himself is lying low, as he has since he stepped down from the presidency. He returned to Brazil in late March after his three-month, self-imposed exile in the US; since his return, he has “opted for occasional low-key meet-and-greets and lukewarm speeches,” as Guilherme Casarões, a professor at Getulio Vargas Foundation’s (FGV) Business School and coordinator of the Far Right Observatory in Brazil, wrote in the Americas Quarterly last week.
With so much scrutiny directed at him, and so much political and personal vulnerability, Bolsonaro has decried the investigations as politically motivated but hasn’t released teary videos or staged massive rallies as he’s done before. As Casarões writes, his ability to rile up his supporters is the sole base of his populist power; without that, it’s hard to imagine what’s next for the man or his movement.
Still, Bolsonaro’s base may do some of this work for him, as Rodrigo Nunes, a Brazilian philosophy scholar who teaches at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and the University of Essex told Vox’s Jonathan Guyer in January:
But, the leader rides on the back of a swarm of what you could describe as political entrepreneurs who are social-media influences, who are YouTubers, commentators in legacy media, etc., to whom the leader outsources much of the work of agitation and mobilization and organization. While on the other hand, these people see the leader as expanding the reach of what they do and providing both political and even economic opportunities for them. Your YouTube channel is your politics, but it’s also the way you make money.
Bizzarro told Vox he was skeptical as to whether there will be a violent uprising in response to Bolsonaro’s political ouster. January’s uprising was the last gasp of “a months-long effort to destroy Brazilian democracy,” he said. “That was really a desperate last attempt; everything else, every other idea they had, had been shut down and was ineffective, and that was kind of a desperate attempt to make something happen.”
There’s always a chance that, as the political winds shift, Bolsonaro may be allowed back on the political stage before the 2030 elections, similarly to how Lula made a miraculous comeback from prison as political sentiment shifted back in his favor.
But it would take several years for Bolsonaro to stage such a comeback, Bizzaro told Vox. “Brazilian democracy is probably safe in the short term.”